An answer to Michael Morcombe

Subject: An answer to Michael Morcombe
From: Lloyd Nielsen <>
Date: Wed, 19 Jul 2006 14:08:44 +1000
In reply to Michael Morcombe’s attack on me (Birding-aus - 6 July) for
my comments and my review of his compact guide in “The Emu”, I offer the
following. I apologise for the length of this posting and to have to
reply in such a manner on this forum.

I was asked by the book review editor of The Emu in early 2005 to write
a review of Michael Morcombe’s new Compact guide for that journal. My
brief was to write an honest but accurate review and its value to Emu
readers, but bearing in mind that the readership was scientifically

I approached this with an open mind and spent considerable time on the
task. My initial expectation was to give it a reasonably good review.
However, the further my research progressed, the more apparent it became
that there were serious shortcomings in this guide. (I can assure
Michael Morcombe that I researched it very well!) Amongst other things,
the distribution system used and inaccuracies in some of the individual
maps were of much concern. (I had to bear in mind that the review was
for a readership concerned with fact, where accuracy was paramount. It
was not a review for the local bird club newsletter!)

There were about 50 distribution maps for NE Qld and at least 6 for SE
Qld with major discrepancies/errors - both are areas with which I am
very familiar. Some exceptionally bad examples were - Golden Bowerbird
(restricted to a thin strip of high altitude rainforest on the crest of
the Great Dividing Range, no more than about 4 km wide at its widest -
yet the species is shown in the Morcombe guide occupying an area about
250 km wide), Satin Flycatcher (showing two apparent core populations in
NE Qld, one about the Cairns-Cooktown area and another on N Cape York
Peninsula - these don’t exist!), Buff-breasted Button-quail (extending
across Cape York Peninsula when it only known from a few sites on the
east coast), Southern Cassowary and so on. Most rainforest species are
incorrectly shown extending well to the west of the rainforest into very
dry habitat which they do not occupy. Some coastal species are shown
extending far inland, well beyond the Great Dividing Range.

To incorporate such inaccurate, seemingly poorly-researched work into a
national field guide, whether it agrees with that in another publication
or not or has been sanctioned by someone unfamiliar with the region or
species as is intimated by Morcombe in his posting is unforgivable.
Those are not valid excuses.

Ranges of NE Qld birds are depicted fairly accurately in my book -
“Birds of Queensland’s Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef” compiled
mostly from information freely given by most birding people within the
Wet Tropics at the time. Most were then invited to comment after the
data was collated and a draft prepared. This book is extensively quoted
throughout later Hanzab volumes published since its own publication in
1996. It is a surprise then that Michael Morcombe apparently failed to
check his maps and data against that information before publication of
his guide.

I stand by my claim that his distribution system does not work and that
the maps are largely misleading. In an attempt to justify it, Morcombe
quotes the other field guides and Hanzab as using “similar tints” to
indicate different degrees of distribution. However, “tints” are not the
crux of the matter for these are used in a very different, credible and
accurate manner in those publications as distinct from the system
Morcombe uses. Nearly all of the Morcombe maps are drawn with mostly 2
often near parallel lines around a core range to indicate distributional
density. This completely disregards factors which affect distribution -
habitat, altitude, vegetation, rainfall, climate etc. To plot such
distribution for every species would take a team of researchers with
huge resources many years to accurately determine what Morcombe has
tried to do.

A fair question to ask is where is the data on which this system is based?

Michael Morcombe seems to prefer to dwell only on Cassowary distribution
despite the many other distributional discrepancies in his guide. Why
does he not offer explanations for that of Golden Bowerbird and other
Wet Tropics species equally as badly mapped? My use of the Cassowary was
selected only as a good example to depict these discrepancies.

He attempts to justify his Cassowary mapping by several statements i.e.
“My map of the Cassowary can be measured to show the western extremity
of range approximately at the Einasleigh River” and “In the absence of
extensive rainforest, the species crosses intervening dry country to
utilize habitat such as riverine forest” and “...Dr S.J.J.F. Davies …..
confirms the presence of the Cassowary in the region shown by the maps”
(Morcombe’s and Hanzab’s) and also “Furthermore, Hanzab’s two-colour map
has most of the far western range red rather than pink to show a
breeding population” (out to the Einasleigh River ?!). The latter is
just so fanciful as to be unbelievable. Has either man ever seen or
visited this country?? The truth is that Hanzab is WRONG! Dr Davies is
also wrong if in fact he has confirmed that. Did not Michael Morcombe
check this before he drew his map? Check the accurate Cassowary
distribution in my Birds of Qld’s Wet Tropics and other independent Wet
Tropics publications or ask the many excellent birders in the Wet
Tropics both amateur and professional who all reside in or close to the
range of the Cassowary as I do. Incidentally, I did not recommend Hanzab
“for its maps”. I do not think Hanzab is infallible - it does contain
errors. We all make them!

Sure, Cassowaries will cross shortish stretches of open country to reach
suitable habitat but not as far west as the Einasleigh River which is
about 150 km from the nearest rainforest all of which is inhospitable to
Cassowaries. The Cassowary is a RAINFOREST species, dependent on an
abundant supply of rainforest fruits - a rainforest keystone species and
the major disperser of rainforest plants which bear larger fruit. It
relies on this abundance for survival. That abundance of fruit does not
exist in the species-poor dry open woodland which extends west from the
rainforest. Common sense should indicate that a Cassowary would soon
succumb to hunger in such habitat, or to lack of water in the dry
season. And riverine rainforest extends only a few km along these
western rivers from the eastern rainforest and in almost all cases this
forest does not produce enough fruit to support cassowaries for more
than a short time.

He states “Further to the review in Emu, complete details from the
literature substantiating the facts as presented in my Complete Compact
Guide, refuting Nielsen’s many claims of errors found by him, will be
published on my website and possibly elsewhere in coming months” and “My
investigation of his review has, in almost every instance, found support
in the literature for the accuracy of my work. Not only in HANZAB, but
in also many other works by authors highly respected in their field”.

The latter claims are highly unlikely. It is not whether these
statements can be substantiated from the literature - it is whether they
are correct or not! The literature contains many errors (a trap Morcombe
appears to have fallen into e.g. Cassowary distribution!). Because
something has appeared in print does not mean that it is correct. It
also helps to substantiate some from one’s own personal field experience
and research.

I would suggest that before he publishes it to his website, he publish
it to an open forum where there can be reasonable and helpful debate.
Perhaps he should start with revealing the data used to support the
distribution system he has used? Perhaps he could put that on his
website! Or perhaps he could start by checking Cassowary distribution
with local Wet Tropics birders. I wish him luck.

I would also suggest that he quote references and supply data to support
the many other inaccurate, erroneous statements in his guide, for
example, that Green Pygmy-Goose dives strongly, that Sarus Crane was an
unknown and established breeding species in North-east Queensland, that
Fig-Parrots dive away, that they usually travel above the canopy, that
White-rumped Swiftlet has wings narrow and swept back in fast flight,
that tail plumes of Albert’s Lyrebird is dense compared with Superb’s
open tracery, that White-browed Robin droops and flicks its wings and
perches sideways on tree-trunks, that two races of Eclectus Parrot exist
at Iron Range, Cape York Peninsula, (one being the New Guinea subspecies
which in reality, just reaches Boigu, Duaun and Saibai Is against the NG
mainland as a vagrant), that a black breastband precedes the moult of
juvenile into the all-black adult Metallic Starling, that call of Great
Bowerbird is intermingled with… often brief snatches of small bird’s
song then it switches to the demonic cackling call of Blue-winged
Kookaburra, that tooth bill of Tooth-billed Bowerbird is used to snip
and carry large leaves to display area (it is used mostly for a diet of
leaves and plant material), that Lewin’s Honeyeater spirals around
tree-trunks and branches, that Yellow-spotted Honeyeater tends to perch
with body semi-horizontal, that White-winged Triller hunts from exposed
perches chasing flying insects, that Grey Whistler behaves more like a
flycatcher, that Hall’s Babbler inhabits open plains of sparse stunted
trees, that Scarlet Honeyeater exists mainly at higher altitudes in NE
Qld and that it is mainly sedentary in the north of its range, that
Varied Honeyeater descends to mud (in mangroves) to take tiny
crustaceans (a single vague record?), that Noisy Friarbird is sedentary
in the north of its range, that Mountain Thornbill gathers into small
flocks after spring-summer breeding season and that there is a slight
colour variation between lowest and highest altitudes, that Fairy
Gerygone has a strong and penetrating voice, that the Lovely Fairy-wren
often briefly fans its tail, that the Red-bellied Pitta’s call rises
steadily and finishes quite high and clear, that Marbled Frogmouth hunts
from low branches, dropping down to take prey from the ground (despite
what some of the literature says it is mostly a canopy species), that
Red-necked Crake has a monotonous “klok-klok-klok….” (tok-tok-tok…) call
which may continue for hours (a call of Bush-hen misidentified as the
Crake and now in the literature), that some Oriental Cuckoos remain
through the Australian winter, that Pheasant Coucal flies quite high and
far at times, that Gould’s Bronze-Cuckoo hunts insects in flight … and
on the ground, that it extends to NE NSW, that flocks of Sulphur-crested
Cockatoo in the tropics are small and the birds are more arboreal, that
the Palm Cockatoo rarely ventures far from its rainforest habitat, that
Topknot Pigeons occasionally forage in the undergrowth (as distinct from
understorey), that White-headed Pigeon is one of the shyest and wariest
of Pigeons, that Cotton Pygmy-Goose is an uncommon vagrant over most of
its range, that there are often many Orange-footed Scrubfowl found
together, that Blue-faced Parrot-Finch descends in winter to the coastal
lowlands, that it builds a nest 1-7m from the ground at the edge of the
rainforest, that the Yellow-bellied Sunbird is a rainforest species,
that Russet-tailed Thrush is more rufous overall than Bassian, that the
Golden Bowerbird comes lower on slopes of ranges in winter……and so on
and on …., then I will humbly apologise. Sure, a few of these may have
been recorded on an occasion or so but those statements should never
make their way into a field guide as standard fact. That is truly

I did not look closely at waders, seabirds or the southern species - my
knowledge of those birds is not great enough on which to make comment.
He states that I have criticised only the Morcombe guides. My only
comment is that it is fairly uncommon to find errors in the other guides.

Had Michael Morcombe contacted some of the birders in this region (and
other regions?) when he was preparing drafts, I know he would have
received enthusiastic, accurate, generous help (from myself included),
similar to that I received when putting my Wet Tropics book together.
But apparently he chose not to, nor did he apparently check against some
of the literature available. He had an excellent opportunity to produce
Australia’s leading field guide, appearing 10 years and more after the
others were first published but unfortunately that has not happened.

I would suggest he read a frank and forthright contribution to
Birding-aus from the Birding-aus archives by Andrew Stafford posted on
15 August 2000, dealing with other matters in the larger guide, a
contribution with which I fully agree.

Finally I would make two points -

Firstly, I stand by my review in The Emu and secondly I refuse to become
engaged in an unsavoury public argument and therefore will not be
entering into further debate on this subject on this or any other forum.

Lloyd Nielsen

Mt Molloy, Nth Qld


To unsubscribe from this mailing list,
send the message:
(in the body of the message, with no Subject line)

<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>
  • An answer to Michael Morcombe, Lloyd Nielsen <=

The University of NSW School of Computer and Engineering takes no responsibility for the contents of this archive. It is purely a compilation of material sent by many people to the birding-aus mailing list. It has not been checked for accuracy nor its content verified in any way. If you wish to get material removed from the archive or have other queries about the archive e-mail Andrew Taylor at this address: andrewt@cse.unsw.EDU.AU